I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

(A Drop of) Sanguinity and Latex: RED+MA by Blood Concept

While high street and mainstream perfumery is assiduously concerned with lucre and the relentless pursuing of trends, it has fallen to the exploratory and experimental world of niche and bijou perfumery to examine the more esoteric and abstracted hinterlands of our olfactory experiences. This is not to say however that either approach is entirely right or wrong. Both sides are needed in order for the differences and similarities to become apparent. White needs black. Day needs night. Not everyone is comfortable with abstractions and difference. Some of us need comfort, recognizable shapes, smells and the familiar. There is room for both.

For me, perfumery is an art form, concerned with the exploration of memory & beauty through the manipulation of skin, thermal motion and the perfumer’s alchemical skills. Reverse engineering this olfactory memory facet is the motivation that drives perfumers, brands, consumers and scent obsessives alike.  We all have our own specific definitions of beauty and apply these to our daily lives and the world around us. We search to trigger and cultivate our own odiferous surrounds. We choose a multitude of accords and notes to lacquer our skin. Some are traditional such as: roses, violet, tonka bean, lemon and verbena, vanilla, musk, woods and oakmoss. Some less so; ozone, Iso-e Super, glue, sellotape, candyfloss, fur, flint, milk and now blood. 

We all find beauty in disparate experiences and encounters. This is how it should be. I find the stygian scent of tar very moving for some reason, aircraft fuel can move me to tears as years of travelling long haul flights as a child come tumbling back.  There is a particular scent to eroded plastic chairs that catapults me back to old lecture theatres; hot water pipes, threadbare carpet and my student days in the crumbling language department, revising in the winter months, drenched in KL by Lagerfeld. There is beauty in mud, sillage, petrol, caramel, cats in the sun, Ambre Solaire, yeast, cut grass, gunpowder and new magazines. We all have our own reference points.

Beauty is in the nose of the beholder. Some smaller niche houses have started really narrowing their nostrils as it were, designing their fragrances around quite specific themes: travel, patisserie, imaginary novels, writers, art, photography etc. The idea is fascinating and can allow the imagination to flow in carefully controlled directions. However when I first came across Blood Concept, launched in 2011 at Esxence in Milan by founders Giovanni Castelli and Antonia Zuddas I was struck by how incredibly precise and yet potentially limiting their small range was.  Working with the four human baseline blood types, O, A, B and AB, they had created a quartet of distinctive fragrances all containing a much publicised blood or metallic facet. Despite the different arrangement of each scent they are all linked by this peculiar and somewhat unsettling ferrous note. It is the smell of freshly rinsed hot cutlery, cut skin, sucked wounds and dental recovery. It is the smell of stigmata, icons, serial killing and surgery. Blood fascinates and repels, Blood Concept know this and want us to face our latent fear. We know it is just fragrance. If so, why does it unnerve me quite so much?   

Castelli is a fashion designer and co-founder of the brand La Stressa. Zuddas is a photographer and copywriter, who worked in advertising. The brand image is sleek and eye-catching. A lot of credit for this must go to 2PFG designers Fabrizio Piras and Giuseppe Porcelli who created the look of the boxes. ( Rosaceous and bold, Blood Concept has a pseudo-scientific art vibe that just about hangs together. It does come across as a little pretentious at times. Although I have a feeling the translations of text and press information are often rather poor. It is just fragrance after all.  The mission statement/concept is quite vampiric and sensational.

"The human body is totally pervaded by a liquid vital rush that brings us what we are most fond of: Life. Filled with legends and meanings‚ blood is soaked with mystery, fascination and respect: it’s the most tested and studied part of the human body. Hiding the multitude of secrets that reveals our inner and unique way of being. BLOOD Concept is a ceremony devoted to the pulse of life and its visceral boost. It is actually the river of life."

There is a lot going on in this statement, not much of it to do with fragrance. However, Blood Concept are asking us, albeit in a convoluted way, to look at scent differently, to perhaps set aside beauty, sex and attraction and ponder other reasons for anointing our skin.

They are not alone in this desire to alter our perceptions of scents. Two other niche brands I admire in this respect are Humiecki and Graef and Andrea Maack.

Humiecki and Graef are driven by pure emotion; their very honed and specific scents are inspired by feelings and moods: fury, (maternal) pride, trust, melancholy, folly and desire. Created by Sebastian Fischenich and Tobias Mueksch, the Humiecki and Graef fragrances are incredibly abstracted. I only really got to try them when I was in Moscow for work. They have initially oddly synthetic overtures followed by a chilly evolution of complex notes that play over the skin like chips of ice falling on marble. They feel detached and distant, despite the presence of spices, balms, resins and woods. Everything seems filtered through frozen gauze.

I like the strangeness of Skarb, the scented essay on melancholia with notes of absinth, lovage, roman chamomile, barley, frankincense, myrrh and musks. It is cold and dove grey in tonality, with a sharp metallic feel to the herb elements as it dries down. It is transparent, in that it lies wanly over the skin and doesn’t really meld. I like its discomfort and perplexity. Skarb also has a unique vegetal odour, like the scent you get from a wheatgrass shot. I’m not sure to be honest if it’s even wearable. I wandered around Red Square with it liberally sprayed on my wrists and found myself puzzled and intrigued by the disparity between the purported sadness of the scent and my muted reaction to a nebulous if charming array of notes. But like Blood Concept, Humiecki and Graef have set out to produce a selection of perfumes with a very rigid code of aesthetics and this can only be admired.

Andrea Maack is Icelandic and trained as an artist, influenced heavily by fashion and the world of beauty. She is inspired by her own sinuous line drawings to create highly complex perfumes that are perceived as couture scent or wearable art. Each one of her fragrances starts life as art and evolves into haute/art perfumery through Maack and her collaborator Apf Perfumery.

Founded in 2009 Maack has released Silk, Dark, Smart, Sharp, Craft. Her latest and most intriguing fragrance is Coal, inspired by charcoal drawings. Smart (from Smell Art) was her first perfume and set her on a very idiosyncratic scented route.  Maack’s creative processes may seem enigmatic and a little pretentious to everyday fragrance hunters but she is determined to push at the boundaries of how scent can be defined. It seems on the surface she has eliminated skin from her intentions, but in fact the muscular and sinuous nature of her drawings and some of her sculptural forms are very sensual and reflect her studied attitude to skin. 

Her latest release Coal is creating quite a buzz. A collaboration with Richard Ibanez, Coal purportedly highlights the play of the charcoal line on white paper. Ibenez has used contrasting light and dark ingredients to suggest this; immortelle, leather, patchouli and black pepper smudged and inscribed over a ground of shiso leaf, baie rose (pink pepper) and papyrus. I haven’t had an opportunity to try Coal yet, but it is very high on my list of must-trys. Anything with immortelle and papyrus intrigues me. Maack’s remit seems contained and precise yet her desire to communicate with perfume and art is universal.

So Blood Concept are another specific house who have thought carefully about the perception of their line. There is just the right amount of gloss with a medical sheen and subversive sexual vibe to pull in the bloodsuckers. A brand built around blood does not appeal to everyone. Looking at blood types and compatibility etc is clever and taps into our obsession with origins. The Blood Type diet is one of the world’s most successful, followed by millions and dating by blood type compatibility is huge business.

It may of course all just be marketing and stylish manipulation of our senses and desire to fit in. But we ask ourselves - what if? Does it really work?

I’m Blood type O, the most common and the original before man started moving around the planet. When I sampled Blood Concept’s O I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. Essentially a leather scent with thyme, rosemary, rosehip, birch, raspberry and the trademark metallic notes, it smelt like a ravaged cottage garden after an electrical storm with touches of riding tack.

I have to admit I am still undecided about the metallic/blood notes. I do however love the dropper flacons; they remind me of Windsor and Newton Black Indian Ink bottles. I find application with droppers oddly intimate; gently placing the liquid onto the skin and watching it run across the surface. I can imagine carefully dripping it down the back of a neck or on the inside of a thigh…. Very sensual.

After the first four fragrances I was intrigued where Castelli & Zuddas would take Blood Concept next. The answer was deconstruction, removing the red and leaving behind an impression of plasma, the straw-coloured viscous liquid left after centrifugally spinning blood with an anti-coagulant. This is a very strange process and even reading about it left me feeling slightly sweaty and queasy. +MA is the resulting scent, a very strange, off-white fragrance by perfumer David Maruitte. The brand PR bumf mentions clean air, fresh sheets and childhood memories and these are undoubtedly there in the unsettling musks and aromachemicals that seep out of the composition. I found it sickly, cheap candy-on-fingers-sweet with an odd fabric softener undertone that rarely moved at all on my skin. Now I love white musks, laundry smells and starch but this was not a great scent on me, it breaks apart too quickly and reveals a stagnancy beneath, a soapy off-water note I disliked intensely. So while it was an intriguing idea to dilute the red of the blood types, +MA is inherently less interesting and quick to fade to boredom. 

RED+MA however is a different olfactory animal altogether. As the name suggests, the metallic blood concept has been combined with the milky weirdness of +MA. The scent has been created by the wonderful Antoine Lie, the creative (some say lunatic) nose behind a number of Etat Libre D’Orange essays in provocation, including two of my favourite fragrances of all time, Rossy de Palma, Eau de Protection and the incredible Tom of Finland. He also created the utterly polarising saline floral Magnificent Secretions, a heaving bilge note of metallic aromas, blood, iodine, semen and white deathly clamminess. It is also glitteringly compulsive. I wear it ONLY on cloth, lining jackets and on scarves, it gives off a very creepy, dead flowers washed up on the beach aroma. Definitely not for the fainthearted, but fascinating nonetheless.

Lie also collaborated with Comme des Garçons on Daphne, the disconcerting and surprising fragrance for the tiny silvered and aristocratic one, Daphne Guinness. A scent of memento mori, a map of her memories and eclectic influences, Daphne is a very difficult scent to like actually, but I was in Liberty sampling CdG’s glue and brown tape Eau de Parfum so I sprayed Daphne liberally in the crook of my arm. As I sat slumbering in the juddering hum of the flight home, all I could smell was Lie’s masterly blending of incense, rose, bitter orange and a really haunting saffron and vanilla duet that seems to rise and fall like lovemaking skin.  

I mention these other scents because there are echoes of them in RED+MA. Lie’s work is quite distinctive. Stark and brutal, metallic frameworks, coated in fabrics, petals and burnished leathers to soften the impact on the senses. Eau de Protection has a blood note buried amid the rose and cocoa, it beats very softly at the heart of the composition, fanned by incense, patchouli and benzoin. The Safraleine molecule Lie uses in Tom of Finland has a very distinctive metallic under leather note, like 80s monochrome furniture, something Patrick Bateman might fuck and kill on.

RED+MA has a full on metallic floral note as it hits the skin, a bouquet of rusted wire if you like, milk-splattered and dripping in liquid latex. I love scents with rubber and plastic associations. Burnt flex, wire, plugs, Bakelite, barstool, rubber. A specific smell set. RED+MA reeks to me of latex and gimp mask… Yes I typed gimp mask. I’ve lived an interesting life and without sharing too many details, the fetish world has an utterly unique olfactory environment. Controlled and theatrical it can be exhilarating and challenging. Quality masks and bodywear have a particular scent that soften over time and adapt to the wearer. This very specific scent of rubber on skin, heat, sweat, lubricant, metal, perfume and make-up is smudged and rubbed beautifully through RED+MA. The metallic, tongue-on-fork sensation, the whiff of bloodied rose, violet powdered skin and sugar syrup poured over sweaty flesh. It is a very odd fragrance indeed. It does smell repellant on occasion; the initial blast is positively criminal in its ferrous intensity. My saliva runs, I feel a little dizzy and white. You can almost taste the blood at the back of your nose like the aftermath of dental work; the smell is that intense.

The drydown is lovely, woodsy with a creamy lullaby feel. The aldehydes that splatter across the top and drip the blood and milk through the composition fade quietly into strange shadows, flickering in the background. (A friend mentioned she could smell warm balloons as it settled…). The milk accord is not a massive thing; it seems present in the overall lactic sweetness and rounded quality of RED+MA. I think if Lie had used a more blatant milk effect, like Bertrand Duchaufour used in Penhaligon’s Amaranthine or the ambrosial milk note Nathalie Lorson used in the Zadig + Voltaire/Le Labo collaboration Tome 1 La Pureté, RED+MA would have tipped into excess, a perfumed experiment that failed. As it is, the fragrance is still experimental enough to worry the average fragrance wearer.

For now I will continue to admire its brutal facets, its way of challenging our senses. I like it enough to wear it and think of fetish-clad postulants with stigmata, then the waves of dizziness buffet me, reminding me of my love/hate relationship with sanguinity. Blood Concept is a fascinating brand with a rigorous and concentrated aesthetic. I love the press and marketing images they release through Facebook, they are innovative and thought provoking. Asking us to perfume ourselves with an abstraction of something that is vital to life and flows through our veins is both weird and comforting. I think perhaps the concept of blood as scent is both alluring and deeply discomforting. Internal as external. And this is as it should be.

For more information on Blood Concept, please click link below:

This review was based on a sample kindly provided by Bloom Perfumery. Thank you.